Mobile broadband is becoming a persuasive alternative to a fixed internet line. In some areas, 4G connections can be faster than existing ADSL services, with the fastest connections hitting real-world download speeds of up to 90Mbits/sec. And the arrival of 5G promises to really stir things up, with maximum speeds of up to 1Gbit/sec – and going even faster as the technology matures. Who needs a fixed broadband line?
Mobile broadband has another role too – bringing the internet to places where a fixed-line connection simply isn’t realistic. Whether you’re on holiday, camping, living on a barge or moving into student digs, a mobile broadband service gives you all you need to work, stream and play games. Home workers and small businesses might also find it a useful backup if their usual connection goes down or proves unreliable.
How to choose the best mobile broadband service for you
Until fairly recently, mobile broadband meant buying a pocket-sized router that worked with a 4G SIM to create a mobile wireless hotspot, which could be used to hook up your laptops, tablets and handheld games consoles to the internet while you were away from home.
Increasingly, though, we’re seeing fully featured designs that do everything you’d expect of a conventional ADSL or fibre router – only using a mobile connection, rather than a fixed line. So far, the limited speeds of 4G services have put such devices in a bit of a niche, but the advent of 5G changes that. When you can get up to 500Mbits/sec just by slotting in a SIM card, why wait for a supplier to bring a full fibre connection to your home?
These new home services tend to be more expensive than the old-school mobile broadband, but come with faster speeds and a higher monthly data cap – or even an unlimited allowance. Some models can also run off battery power, allowing you to take the Internet with you wherever you go, for a few hours at least. Just bear in mind that you won’t get 5G or even 4G+ speeds outside of the UK’s biggest towns and cities.
Which brings us onto the other big issue: location. Most of the big mobile networks deliver a strong 4G signal across most of the UK, but you’ll only get the fastest 4G+ or LTE-A services in larger towns and cities, so check the coverage and compare predicted speeds for your location before you sign up. This goes double for 5G. While services are rolling out across more of the UK, coverage is still confined to around 80 urban and suburban areas – and could be patchy even within those.
What else should I look out for?
Typically, a 4G mobile service will cost a set amount per month for a data allowance between 5GB and 50GB. Most services are designed for casual browsing, work and music streaming, rather than a weekend’s Netflix binge, but if you need more bandwidth then you can go higher up the scale and find plans with allowances of up to 500GB a month.
Some networks are also now offering unlimited options, at prices that compare to those of standard fibre broadband lines. This is an option well worth considering, as it means you can make the most of all that high-speed connectivity without having to worry about keeping an eye on the meter.
Finally, take a good look at the router you’re getting with your package. Most mobile broadband services use the same two or three pocket-sized routers or 5G hubs, but there are key differences between them, such as the number of Ethernet connections, Wi-Fi speeds and battery provision.
READ NEXT: Want a fixed line? Here’s our list of the best broadband providers
The best mobile broadband you can buy in 2020
1. Three Home Broadband: Best unlimited 4G/5G broadband
Price: From £22 to £30 per month | Buy now from Three
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area with Three’s 5G coverage, then its Home Broadband package is hard to beat. For £30 a month (with a 24-month contract) you get unlimited 5G broadband at the fastest speed available, with performance that can match and even beat many fibre options. Three promises average speeds in the region of 100Mbits/sec – not as fast as 5G promises, but still very reasonable – and some users have found speeds of over 300Mbits/sec. These speeds aren’t always consistent, though, and some users have complained of fluctuations or even drops in service – issues that should improve as 5G services mature.
Those outside of 5G areas aren’t forgotten, either. Three also offers an unlimited 4G+ Home Broadband plan, based on a Huawei HomeFi router. This comes in at £22 per month with a two-year contract, and no upfront charge. Three’s 4G network didn’t perform as well as O2’s or Vodafone’s in the most recent RootMetrics speed and coverage tests, but they’re competitive with ADSL2+ broadband speeds if you’re on the move or can’t get a fast fixed line.
Buy now from Three
2. EE 5G Hub: Premium 5G broadband
Price: From £50 to £70 per month | Buy now from EE
EE’s main focus is on smartphones, but it also offers a mobile 5G Hub. With data allowances maxing out at 100GB a month, it’s not ideal for 4K streaming, but it’ll support up to 20 devices simultaneously over 802.11ac at the fastest available 5G speeds – and the built-in battery means you can take it with you wherever you go. EE is now also offering a home-focused 5GEE Router with its own antenna, designed specifically to replace existing fixed-line connections. The antenna should ensure that you get the best possible 5G signal in your home, even with thick walls. EE claims average speeds of 150MB/sec.
Again, independent speed tests aren’t yet available, but there’s good reason to be optimistic: RootMetrics rates EE as the fastest UK network for 4G services, and the company has been investing heavily in 5G. Just be aware that the plans are quite expensive. With the mobile 5G Hub, a 100GB monthly allowance will set you back £75 a month with a £100 upfront cost, while 50GB plan costs £50 a month. The 5GEE Router with Antenna is better value, giving you 1,000GB of data for a monthly £70, plus £100 upfront, but Vodafone and Three still give you more for less.
Buy now from EE
3. Vodafone GigaCube: Good value 4G and 5G broadband
Price: From £30 to £50 per month | Buy now from Vodafone
Vodafone’s 5G GigaCube router comes with a choice of three monthly usage plans: you can get 100GB for a reasonable £30 a month, 200GB for £40 or unlimited usage for £50. It’s a little more expensive than Three, then, but cheaper and less restrictive than EE’s 5G broadband options. Up to 64 devices can connect simultaneously, and there’s support for the latest 802.11ax (“Wi-Fi 6”) standard, with 4×4 MIMO and 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The GigaCube also packs in two Gigabit Ethernet ports – and if you don’t have 5G in your area yet, you can get the same router with a 4G SIM, then upgrade later.
Vodafone has the second-fastest 4G network in the UK after EE, according to RootMetrics’ latest figures, so you can expect reasonable performance on 4G. And on Vodafone’s 5G service we’ve so far seen speeds of up to 231Mbits/sec in London and 450Mbits/sec in Birmingham – which we’d only expect to rise. All in all, a good alternative to fixed-line broadband now, which should get better as 5G matures and rolls out further.
Buy now from Vodafone
4. EE 4GEE: Best 4G mobile broadband for use on the move
Price: From £20 to £30 per month | Buy now from EE
Not everyone’s looking to replace their fixed-line broadband; some just want a fast connection they can take and share across devices, wherever they go. This is where EE’s 4GEE WiFi plans kick in, with deals from as low as £13 a month. That buys you 5GB of monthly data, or you can have 30GB for £20 or 50GB for £30, all with a £10 upfront fee.
You also have a choice of mobile routers. The standard 4GEE WiFI is bigger, but has a larger 4,300mAh battery that can last for up to 15 hours. It charges through a USB-C port, and can double as a power bank to refuel smartphones. The 4GEE WiFi Mini is smaller and lighter but has a micro-USB connection and eight hours of uncharged use. EE’s other great advantage is that it’s the UK’s fastest 4G network, so whether you want mobile broadband at home or on the go, you can feel confident about performance.
Buy now from EE
5. O2 Mobile Broadband: Strong mobile broadband for home and on the move
Price: From £20 to £24 per month | Buy now from O2
O2 offers two pocket-sized routers: the Huawei model that’s also used by Three and Vodafone, and the Pocket Hotspot Pro, manufactured by Netgear. The latter’s more expensive but also more interesting, with support for the fastest Gigabit LTE 4G standards (so it’ll make the most of whatever 4G signal you can get), plus 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a Gigabit Ethernet port and support for up to 20 devices at a time. You can buy it with 4G plans ranging from 15GB to 75GB, at prices that vary depending on whether you sign up for one, two or three years.
RootMetrics’ latest figures rank O2 fourth on UK-wide speeds, behind EE, Vodafone and Three, so overall performance might not be outstanding. However, speeds are very good in certain areas, so depending on where you live the Pocket Hotspot Pro might work well for you – and with its small form factor and 24-hour battery life, it’s also pretty handy on the move.
Buy now from O2
6. Three: The best mobile broadband for unlimited data on the go
Price: From £12 to £23 per month | Buy now from Three
While Three is heavily pushing 5G as a home broadband option, it hasn’t forgotten the mobile market. Like O2 and Vodafone, it offers a range of 4G services with a Huawei micro-router, offering a four-hour battery life and 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
On paper, the service offers 4G speeds of up to 150Mbits/sec, but you might struggle to see those speeds on Three’s network: RootMetrics’ latest figures place Three well behind EE and Vodafone in terms of performance, with average download speeds in many areas below 20Mbits/sec. However, Three’s service gives you a wide range of price options, from £10 per month with a 2GB data allowance to £17 per month for 40GB, plus an unlimited data plan for a very reasonable £23 per month. If speed isn’t everything, and you’re not looking to replace your home connection, it’s the best 4G mobile broadband deal around.
Buy now from Three